At the Fall ACS last week I went to a wonderful symposium that was a collection of highlights from the world of chemical biology. Listening to Laura Kiessling talk about her work I started thinking again about how beautiful the close up photos of cells can be. It turns out I’m not the only one.
One thing I’ve noticed here at the meeting is how many sessions are devoted to all the plans for a manned mission to Mars. For something that won’t take place for years, if at all, there’s been at least one session a day. OK, that’s not as many as hydrogen storage, say, or macromolecular chemistry, but it’s certainly more than I’ve seen before. So what have I learnt? (more…)
Here in Denver, the Mile High City, there’s a big blue bear that tries to peer into the convention centre. What’s he been missing so far at this week’s American Chemical Society national meeting in Denver?
— Curious Bear
A presidential symposium on empowering tomorrow’s science superheroes was actually a great mix of the funny to the thought provoking. The bits that everyone will probably remember was Marc Abrahams of the IgNobel Awardstalking about making people laugh and then think. I have to admit I cried with laughter at the story of the gas mask bra, US Patent 7255627. But it’s true that a lot of the research the IgNobel highlights is actually useful, even if it sounds silly at first, and in the UK the awards always get a lot of coverage. Watch out for the 2011 awards later this month which will focus on chemistry.
But it is important that science isn’t seen as just silly, hard or a waste. The two most important things I took away from the session were, in my opinion, the importance of not dumbing down or insulting the intelligence of your audience, be they adults, or school children, and the importance of inspiring and enthusing children with context and real scientists and science. This morning I heard that the most important influence on the career aspirations of children (at least in Colorado) is fathers. So if we want to get pupils into science and we want to make sure science is supported and appreciated perhaps we need to make a deal to inspire the whole population without dumbing down or sensationalising. Maybe we all need to be science superheroes.
(The symposium was videoed but it isn’t available yet, there is a video of the press conference that followed the symposium but it’s really only a teaser)
The final day of ISACS proved a fitting way to round off a stunning line-up of speakers. Bartosz Grzybowski from Northwestern university in Chicago, US, took a look at the physics of cancer cells to see if they can be distinguished from normal cells by their mechanical or motional properties.
When they are still, it seems there is little to distinguish cancerous and non-cancerous cells. However, when they start to move around, the kinds of cancer cells that cause metastasis (spreading of cancer to new sites) move in quite different ways to non-metastatic cells. They start to move in patterns associated with predatory animals, which turn out to be the optimal way to search for prey – in this case new sites to establish tumours.
By looking at the mechanisms the cells use to move around in this way, the Grzybowski group has designed tiny tracks that force metastatic cells to move one way, while non-metastatic cells move the opposite way and can be separated from each other.
Thursday morning’s session at ISACS 5 was a masterclass in medicinal chemistry, with a series of talks on developing drugs or probe molecules for a variety of medically related targets. But the highlight for me was Ali Tavassoli from the University of Southampton, UK. He has developed a rather elegant way of looking at how protein-protein interactions that modulate gene transcription are affected by metabolic changes. The idea is to use an ingenious system he calls SICLOPPS to make small cyclic peptides within cells when triggered by a particular protein-protein interaction. The peptides can then interfere with the protein binding and reveal how it affects transcription.
Building and thinking with DNA
The first session of the afternoon took quite a different tack, with Erik Winfree from the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, US, and William Shih from Harvard University in Boston, US, talking about cool uses for DNA.
Winfree has developed systems for making programmable logic circuits using DNA strands. As a computer scientist, Winfree is aiming for systems that can be assembled just like regular electronic components. His circuits end up quite complicated, and can do things like calculate square roots and play memory games. At the moment, they are certainly a lot slower than silicon-based computers, and can’t always be reversed and re-used, but the concept is certainly inspiring. This video gives a fuller explanation of the system.
The RSC’s 5th International Symposium on Advancing the Chemical Sciences (ISACS5)is being held in (surprisingly sunny) Manchester this week. The theme of the meeting is ‘Challenges in chemical biology’, which has – in true chemist style – been interpreted in the broadest sense, with talks ranging from origin of life theories to drug design.
Ribosomes do the hokey cokey
The meeting kicked off with a double whammy of Nobel prize winners. Thomas Steitz from Yale University in Connecticut, US, and Venki Ramakrishnan from the Medical Research Council’s Laoratory for Molecular Biology (LMB) in Cambridge, UK, gave enlightening talks about the inner workings of the ribosome – our cells’ protein factories. Steitz pointed out that certain protein sequences cause the ribosome to stall, and abandon synthesis. By understanding what causes this, his group, along with spin out company Rib-X, are hoping to design new antibiotics that can stall bacterial ribosomes.
Both talks were illustrated with videos – Steitz included one made by a former student set to the tune of the hokey cokey, and Ramakrishnan showed this one, of how the ribosome goes about translating RNA into protein.
The ACS meeting this spring is entitled ‘Chemistry of Natural Resources’ so a lot of the sessions have had to do with energy manufacture and storage. This afternoon I went to a session that celebrated Debra Rolison, a woman whose work on electrochemistry materials has been matched by her work improving the number of women in science faculty positions. (more…)
Today I got to hear about how sharks are helping solar fuel research. Not the fish, but Harry Gray’s solar army of high school students. Every summer, students get involved to find good catalysts for water splitting and each good candidate they find spawns into a project for one of Gray’s students back at Caltech. Gray is convinced this is a win win situation: ‘I’m saving these kids from law school’ he cried.
But my pick of today was a talk about the flavour chemistry of the Bloody Mary, although disappointingly there weren’t samples to accompany the talk! (more…)
The Spring ACS is being held in Anaheim this year, just next to Disneyland. Today the conference centre is being shared with a cheer competition but what have I seen today apart from cheerleaders? (more…)